From fantasy fiction to patient narratives, the power of storytelling drives Michelle Izmaylov
"If you just simply sit with someone and listen, you will learn incredible things”September 23, 2021
Michelle Izmaylov. photo by Daniel Dubois
Michelle Izmaylov, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine, is a believer in stories. Whether it is eagerly listening to patients’ stories to decide on the best course of treatment or writing and publishing stories of her own, stories are what get her out of bed in the morning.
Izmaylov first realized the power of storytelling at age 13 when she published her first novel, “The Pocket Watch.” Since then, she has published numerous other works of fiction including “Dream Saver” and “Galaxy Watch.” Her passion for stories followed her from her teenage years into young adulthood, when she attended Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and completed her residency in internal medicine at VUMC. There, she realized patient stories were the key to practicing internal medicine.
“The majority of what you need to know about how to treat the patient comes from just listening to them tell you their history.”
“I love listening to patients’ stories,” Izmaylov said. “That, to me, is absolutely the most important thing. The patient’s story is important across the board no matter what area of medicine you’re in, but nowhere is it more important than in internal medicine. The majority of what you need to know about how to treat the patient comes from just listening to them tell you their history.”
While fantasy writing was her first passion, recently Izmaylov has shifted her focus toward writing nonfiction narrative stories about her experience in the medical field. Her essays “Two Creams, Three Sugars,” “Your Soul is Not Concrete” and “The Seventh Year” have been published in medical journals such as the Journal of General Internal Medicine and the American Journal of Kidney Disease.
“Narrative medicine has always driven me,” Izmaylov said. “It’s this idea of telling a patient’s story and expressing it in a way that’s therapeutic and helpful to them and to other patients who may be dealing with the same things. It also encourages physicians to take a step back and reflect on who their patient is as a person.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Izmaylov channeled her passion for narrative medicine into creating a blog that shares the stories of front-line heroes. Izmaylov and Theodora Swenson, MD, a resident in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, first worked together to tell the stories of Environmental Management Services (EMS) staff who clean patient rooms. With the attention their storytelling brought, they were able to raise more than $8,000 in a single week to buy gift cards for the EMS staff as a token of appreciation.
After this success, Izmaylov and Swenson decided to continue using the blog to share, celebrate and support stories from people who have been impacted by the pandemic. So far, they have collected stories from Olympic hopefuls, restaurant owners, teachers, social workers and many others.
“Everything we’ve collectively experienced over the last 18 months brought us so much to write about and so many emotions to process,” Izmaylov said. “Putting yourself in the shoes of people you might not have considered before is one of the most powerful things you can do as an author or as a doctor. If you just simply sit with someone and listen, you will learn incredible things.”